QUARTERLY ESSAY 53 That Sinking Feeling



Michael Bachelard

I arrived in Jakarta in December 2011 to be Fairfax Media’s Indonesia correspondent just as the number of boat-borne asylum seekers heading for Australia exploded.

In the year before I arrived, just over 5000 people had come on boats, mainly from Java’s southern coast on the familiar route to Christmas Island. In 2011−12 it was 7300. In 2012−13, though, 18,119 people took the journey. Boats were leaving every second day and thousands flooded into Indonesia from Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka to board them.

As the demand increased, so did the supply of smugglers wanting to make a buck. For all their cynicism, the old smugglers had reputations to protect and were interested in repeat business. The new crop, by contrast, were fly-by-nights, chasing maximum profits. The quality of the boats fell as their number increased, and more asylum seekers were robbed. Many of the new smugglers were themselves only stopping briefly on their way to Australia. Some responded to the competition by sending ever bigger, more overcrowded boats as a marketing ploy. 

The sinking in December 2010 on the rocks off Christmas Island had opened the eyes of Australians to the potential for disaster, and another two boats which went down off Java in November and December 2011, killing 230 passengers, shocked people. But these tragedies did nothing to deter new passengers nor shame the smugglers. In 2012 there were eight sinkings; in 2013 fourteen more boats went down, drowning some or all on board.

But what wasn’t clear in early 2012 was that the political response from Australia would be such a tragic combination of ineptitude and cynicism.

Labor’s asylum policy for eighteen months lurched from one unconvincingly tough position to another, and thanks to the High Court’s 2011 ruling on the Malaysia Solution and Tony Abbott’s political gamesmanship, Canberra’s attempt to have any stance at all eventually sputtered out.

Australian policy was foundering and, as Paul Toohey points out in That Sinking Feeling, the then Opposition, dedicated to demonising Julia Gillard, wanted it that way. 

On the ground the situation grew increasingly awful.

My first encounter with desperate people came in April 2012. A group of 120 asylum seekers had been rescued from the ocean by a commercial vessel and brought back to Indonesia’s port of Merak, but they refused to disembark.

The stand-off lasted only a day – Indonesian authorities had learnt a lot from the months-long stalemates involving the Oceanic Viking and another boat at Merak in 2009, so they denied food, shelter and toilets to those on deck. In the late afternoon, they dragged the weakened men from the vessel. 

I recall their screams. I had never heard men making such sounds. Two of them seized loose steel objects from the ship’s deck and beat themselves over the head as police forced them, bloodied, off the boat.

In the following months, worse was to come. In August, I reported the fate of ten-year-old Omid Jafary. He’d watched his father, his uncle and his cousin die around him, sinking beneath the waves as he clung to the flotation device of another passenger. Then he was picked up and returned to Indonesia. Almost 100 died that day.

Later that year I spent time with the miracle survivor of another sinking. Habib Ullah had watched his thirty-three shipmates sink into the ocean over the course of about three days, until he was the only one left.

And still the boats came. The ocean was littered with death, but the numbers taking the chance ratcheted up relentlessly.

As Toohey movingly points out in the most powerful passages of his essay, the death and grief were hard to bear and, at times, it became difficult to maintain a reporterly distance. 

All this tragedy prompted furious political activity in Australia, but none of it achieved anything. Like Toohey, I couldn’t escape the feeling that crocodile tears were being shed. It seemed from this side of the ocean that Australia’s politicians and their boosters were motivated mainly by their own political advantage or survival, not the welfare of asylum seekers. Since Howard, the Right had found the dislike of “irregular maritime arrivals” a rich vein to mine, but the only acceptable way to prosecute its case was to cloak this political calculation in concern over deaths at sea. Meanwhile, where the Right was organised, the Left was divided and ineffectual.

To most voters, I suspect, the drownings that came after Christmas Island in 2010 began to seem rather remote and theoretical, while successful arrivals were regarded almost as a personal affront. 

The 100 per cent deterrence policy of the Abbott government has had its effect. Ask anyone in the asylum-seeker staging post of Cisarua now and they’ll say, “The way is closed.” They believe Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison where they never believed Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

The boats still occasionally leave, but without much hope of success, and not since December 2013 have I had to report a drowning. My stories now are about the people who have been towed back or returned in bulbous orange lifeboats, and who emerge angry and bewildered right where they began – injured, some of them with burnt hands, for example, but alive.

I’ve reported the desperate alternatives some are seeking – the even more dangerous passage to New Zealand, the proposed plane flights (involving false documents or corrupt officials), the return home (particularly by the Iranians, many of whom quietly admit that they never belonged as refugees in the first place). 

Now, though, most wait in Indonesia for resettlement through the so-called front door. This has its own problems, including lengthy detention in squalid, sometimes violent detention centres. Processing takes an undefined (and lengthening) period and can lead to desperate sadness. Mohammad Sarwar Hussaini chose the official route after I warned him in 2012 of the danger of the boat voyage, but he was later inexplicably rejected by Australia. He remains in no-man’s-land.

In these ways, the change of government has changed everything. But it hasn’t changed how I see my job – to report what happens to the human beings who are the subject of Australia’s posturing. Even if the end justifies our country’s policy means, we should at least know what the means are.

What has changed, though, is the barracking from the sidelines. Now when I write about a turn-back or an allegation of abuse, or the difficulty of life in the queue, my employer, Fairfax, and I are accused by the Right of being dewy-eyed apologists for “illegals.” After I interviewed asylum seekers with burnt hands, @Riverrovks tweeted: “For god sake use some common sense. Maybe you should adopt these lying scum bags and use your money to look after them.”

A favourite line of attack is the question, asked sneeringly: “Where were you when people were drowning?” I was dockside, but I’d be willing to bet that my accusers were sitting comfortably at home, barracking for the then Opposition to block any attempt by Labor to legislate to slow the frequency of boats.

But while the Right can be accused of hypocrisy, the Left seems keen to downplay the drownings. Its view of a compassionate approach means Australia should accept most of those who arrive by boat. Perhaps 1000 people, possibly more, have drowned trying to get to Australia over recent years and Australia’s acceptance of the vast majority was essentially encouraging them to take the chance. Look into the eyes of young Omid Jafary and tell me there’s anything compassionate about whole families dying at sea.

Radical global economic inequality, the religious and cultural persecution of minorities, ongoing war and extremism – all the things that make parts of the world awful places to live – are driving people out looking for a better place. Australia is a better place, and there is a well-established route to get there.

If the past few years have shown anything, it’s that push factors and pull factors both exist. Without establishing some controls in Australian policy, and projecting those policies out to the potential customers of people smugglers, the numbers arriving by boat and seeking residency would, in my view, continue to increase.

Part of the tragedy is that Australian politics does not allow a sensible discussion about whether our society could bear 30,000, 50,000 or even 200,000 refugees per year through UN resettlement. Under Abbott, the intake has been reduced to 13,750. But if we opened the front door wider, would this encourage the people smugglers and chancers to multiply again, the economic migrants to jam in their foot, the drownings to recommence? 

If there is a solution which does not involve the cruelty of indefinite offshore detention in dangerous camps, we are yet to discover it. Australia should surely be able to control its borders without being a renowned abuser of human rights. I suspect, though, that there are many Australians who both deplore the treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru and secretly hope it will ward off new arrivals.

Toohey’s suggestion is for an Indonesian Solution. It may well be, as he says, the gold standard of such an idea, and it does seem inexplicable that no Australian government has made any serious attempt to negotiate one. But Toohey does not really spell out what the details might be. How, for example, could you settle more people in Australia, via Indonesia, without firing up the pull factors again? What number can Australia bear? Would more arrivals throw us back into political chaos and division? Since 2001, a large number of arrivals has reliably brought out the worst in our natures. 

Addressing any of these questions seems well beyond the capacity of either the government or the Opposition of 2014.

I don’t have any answers either, but I’ll keep reporting the human fallout. Toohey’s essay is both a handy reminder of where we’ve been and a moving testament to the same impulse – the desire to bear witness to a tragedy that’s partly of Australia’s making. 


Michael Bachelard is Fairfax Media’s Indonesia correspondent. A former political reporter and workplace relations writer, he was awarded a Jefferson Fellowship in journalism in 2005. He is the author of Behind the Exclusive Brethren.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 53, That Sinking Feeling. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 54, Dragon's Tail.


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